Is Quebec taking in too many immigrants? Not by Ontario standards. More than 125,000 chose to enrich this province by making their homes here last year, while Quebec took in fewer than 45,000. Even so, many francophone Quebecers are feeling besieged these days.
And Premier Jean Charest is inviting them to speak up about it. His Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences begins holding public hearings Sept. 10 to canvass people for their views on whether more immigration is desirable, and how far the province should go making newcomers feel welcome.
Some will say: No, and not very far.
Last week Quebec Opposition Leader Mario Dumont trolled for a few more votes from Quebecers who regard themselves as a threatened minority in North America by airing his view that Quebec has hit the wall, accepting newcomers. "We're pretty much at capacity, in terms of intake," he told La Presse newspaper. He then raised the spectres of rushed immigration, ghettos and a troubled society.
After a flurry of controversy, Dumont later said he doesn't want to cut off immigration, just to block any further increases. Even so, this isn't exactly rolling out the welcome mat.
Happily, not all Quebecers share Dumont's cringe reflex.
Commission co-chairs Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, two respected academics, recognize Quebec's demographic and economic gains from immigration, despite some inevitable strains.
Francophone Quebecers, who comprise 70 per cent of the population, are paradoxically "a majority that fears its minorities," Bouchard points out. That makes no sense when Muslims are less than 1.5 per cent of the population. "We have to change that. Being a majority carries with it responsibilities, such as ensuring minority rights are respected." There's some urgency to this debate.
The Quebec hamlet of Hérouxville, pop. 1,300, made headlines this year by drawing up "standards" for newcomers. Muslim women were not to veil their faces, except at Halloween. Sikh schoolchildren were to leave small ceremonial religious daggers at home. There was to be no public stoning of women, burning them alive or hurling acid at them. "We're telling people who we are," one councillor explained.
Elsewhere in Quebec soccer-playing Muslim women and tae kwon do competitors have been told to doff their religious scarves.
Even cosmopolitan, easy-going Montreal is feeling the strain. The Montreal police drew fire for suggesting that women officers defer to men when dealing with Hasidic Jewish men. And the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal got fined for ejecting an ambulance technician from a kosher cafeteria when he brought in non-kosher food.
Like many societies, Quebec is struggling to work through these issues, to define what constitutes a Quebecer, to determine what level of immigration makes sense, who the newcomers should be, and how far society should "reasonably accommodate" those with different customs, both in a narrow legal sense and in a broader social sense.
Balancing competing civil rights in a democratic, egalitarian and multicultural society can be tricky. So can reconciling social cohesion and diversity. But in the interlinked 21st century, these are challenges no society can escape. And perspective and common sense matter. Canada has welcomed 7 million immigrants, their politics and their customs, over 40 years. Most integrate within a generation or two.
Bouchard and Taylor consult until December, reporting next spring.
Quebec's self-critique is off to a healthy, if noisy, start. It may not be entirely pleasant to watch. But as Charest rightly says, "to strengthen Quebec's identity, we have to associate with it as many people as possible." The important thing is to "open Quebec's horizons." That is good guidance for a vital debate.